There’s been a lot of talk online about vitamins and supplements either curing COVID-19, or helping to reduce the severity of it. But there is a lot of unreliable and conflicting advice out there. To separate fact from fiction, I spoke with one of our medical directors, board-certified internist, Dr. Ellen Riccobene, and one of our Registered Nurse Health Coaches, Regina Seufert, RN BSN CCM.
Note: There is no evidence that vitamins or dietary supplements make a difference in COVID-19 recovery. The best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is to wear a mask, practice social distancing, and get the COVID-19 vaccine when you are eligible.
IBX: Is it a valid claim that vitamin D can cure COVID-19, or at least reduce the severity of it?
Dr. Riccobene: Vitamins and minerals can keep our bodies strong and healthy. Health studies suggest that people who don’t have enough essential vitamins and minerals (for example, vitamin D) and who develop COVID-19, could have a more severe case that might require hospitalization. However, this could also be because the same people with vitamin or mineral deficiencies could also have a medical condition that is a risk for COVID-19 (for example, diabetes or obesity).
There is no evidence that taking vitamins and supplements at the time of infection with COVID-19 will decrease your symptoms. There is also no information that vitamins or supplements help people with only a mild or moderate COVID-19 case.
Regina: Therapeutic vitamin D levels are associated with a stronger immune system and decreased risk of severe upper respiratory infections. However, at this time, more research is needed on vitamin D and its correlation to COVID-19 outcomes.
There is no known cure for COVID-19. Proper nutrition can help improve the immune system, but is not an adequate defense against contracting the virus. A mask and social distancing have been proven to help reduce your chances of contracting the virus. The COVID-19 vaccines can help prevent severe illness and aid in recovery.
IBX: What’s the connection between vitamin D and race?
Dr. Riccobene: Some people are more prone to a vitamin D deficiency. If you are older, do not get a lot of sun, are obese, have dark skin, thin/brittle bones, or have problems absorbing food, talk to your doctor about a vitamin D blood test. Some experts recommend taking daily vitamin D supplements (600 to 800 international units [15 to 20 micrograms] of vitamin D daily). However, you should always speak to your doctor before starting a vitamin regimen.
Another reason it’s important to check with your doctor before taking any vitamins or supplements is that they could interact with any prescription medications that you take. Either making them less effective, or, in some circumstances, making them more powerful because of how the body gets rid of them. This could put you in danger of experiencing side effects because your medicines are not correctly adjusted.
Regina: The liver creates the active form of vitamin D3 from sunlight. Since melanin in the skin blocks UVB rays, those with darker skin are at a higher risk for vitamin D deficiency.
Even with sunlight and vitamin D-fortified foods, it is often not possible to meet the minimum daily requirements of vitamin D with a balanced diet. That said, I will echo what Dr. Riccobene said, no one should take a vitamin D supplement unless they have first consulted with their doctor. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that can be toxic if taken in high doses.
IBX: Can vitamin C help in COVID-19 prevention or recovery?
Dr. Riccobene: There is some weak data which suggests some possible benefits of high dose vitamin C in people who are ill, but there is no scientific support for use in patients with COVID-19.
Regina: Vitamins and supplements do not prevent COVID-19. Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that is able to be consumed as part of a well-balanced diet. It may be more beneficial to eat a pepper, for example, than to take a vitamin C supplement. It’s important to note that vitamins are not FDA-regulated, so quality and dosing can vary.
IBX: Zinc is another supplement that’s been in the news a lot. Can zinc help with COVID-19 prevention or recovery?
Dr. Riccobene: While zinc has been proposed as a possible COVID-19 therapy, there isn’t enough clinical data to support the theory that it has a positive impact on hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
Regina: Zinc will not prevent COVID-19. There have been a few small studies that show taking a zinc lozenge after contracting COVID-19 reduced the length of the illness. However, zinc can be found in a well-balanced diet that includes legumes, whole grains, eggs, and meat. Taking zinc in high doses is unsafe. It should not be taken unless you consult with your doctor.
IBX: Even if there’s no proof of vitamins or supplements curing, or helping reduce the severity of COVID-19, is there any harm in taking them?
Dr. Riccobene: Before taking any vitamin or supplement, you should always speak with your doctor to make sure that you do not take a higher dosage than needed. You should not take a dose that exceeds the upper level intake.
Regina: Vitamin D and zinc taken in excess can be fatal. It is important not to take any supplements over-the-counter without first consulting with your doctor about your specific needs, health conditions, and prescribed medications. Supplements are essentially medications. Several supplements can interact with each other. For example, cod liver oil contains vitamin D, so taking it along with a multivitamin or vitamin D supplement can be problematic. Eating a balanced diet and getting vitamins and minerals from food is recommended over getting vitamins and minerals from supplements. With future research, guidelines for vitamin D supplementation may change and be the exception to this principle.
Dr. Ellen Riccobene
Dr. Ellen Riccobene, a board-certified internist, is the IBX Medicare STARs clinical team medical director. Dr. Riccobene also serves as the medical director liaison for IBX local and national customers and conducts company medical utilization reviews. She graduated from Tulane University, summa cum laude, and received her medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine. She completed her residency in internal medicine at Georgetown University Hospital. Before joining Independence Blue Cross in 2008, Dr. Riccobene worked at hospitals in Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and in Philadelphia, and served as an internal medicine residency director.
Regina Seufert RN BSN CCM
Regina Seufert, a board certified registered nurse and case manager, is an IBX Medicare nurse health coach. Ms. Seufert serves the Medicare population, speaking to customers and providers directly, specializing in diabetes management and patient advocacy. She graduated from Drexel University with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing. Before joining Blue Cross in 2015, she worked at hospitals including Hahnemann University Hospital, Jefferson University Hospital, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Her clinical specialties include neurology and neurosurgery critical care, orthopedics and level II trauma nursing.